Here are the important things to know about Mario Kart 8:
- Though it combines anti-gravity, underwater, and gliding sections throughout every course, the fundamental driving mechanics are just how you remember from pretty much every Mario Kart ever made.
- At least four or five of the new courses are among the very best in the series.
- I did not love the selection of "classic courses" Nintendo picked for this game, but that's a highly subjective opinion.
- It's probably the best looking Wii U game to date.
- The online play works.
- Battle mode has inexplicably been made godawful.
- The theme song for the new Bowser Castle level has been stuck in my head for the last two weeks.
- There are too many baby characters.
Obviously these above statements do not make for a full review, hence why there are several more paragraphs below this one. But I wanted to put these points up front because they are what stuck out most in my head as I reviewed this, the eighth Mario Kart game. I have played every game in this series, and enjoyed most of them. It has never mattered all that much to me that Nintendo doesn't radically change the Mario Kart formula from sequel to sequel, because the core game has remained fun, even after all these years. Maybe I get bored with one sequel more quickly than another, but I always play them, and I always manage to wring at least some enjoyment out of them. There has never been a bad Mario Kart game in my estimation, but not all of them are great. Mario Kart 8 is greater than the average Mario Kart game, but not the very best in the series. I expect that statement, coupled with the above bullet points, is probably enough information to get most Nintendo fans to run out and pre-order, if they haven't already.
For those who need a bit more in the way of details, the most important thing to consider in any Mario Kart is how well the driving handles. Mario Kart 8 is a delight in this regard. You can choose from a wide variety of characters, karts, wheels, and gliders when preparing for a race. All have their own ratings in weight, speed, handling, and the like, and mixing and matching combinations is something I still find myself experimenting with, even after playing for a couple of weeks. The differences aren't minor, and it's entirely possible to pick a character/kart combo that is disastrously unwieldy. Finding that sweet spot is tough, but very satisfying when you hit it.
Once you get into a race, you'll find all the familiar mechanics you'd expect. Pressing the right trigger sends your character into a drift, which can be used for minor speed boosts. Weapons can be acquired via boxes littered throughout every track, and all the usual suspects--speed boosting mushrooms, invincibility stars, peels of banana, and shells of green and red and horrible, detestable blue--are on hand, and function as you will remember. Newer weapons include fireballs, a boomerang, a chomping piranha plant, an update of the grab-bag weapon that surrounds you with like eight different weapon choices, and a horn that sends a shockwave toward everything in your immediate path. That last weapon is perhaps the most notable among them, if only because it's the first weapon to allow players to negate a blue shell. Blue shells have always been unstoppable nightmare weapons, but if you have the horn you can ward off a blue shell so long as you time the attack right, which isn't very difficult. It's not often that a player at the head of the pack will have this weapon, so the opportunities to use it are few and far between. But that the option is there at all is a welcome change of pace.
Mario Kart 8 also brings back coins as a method for increasing your kart's speed. You'll find them scattered all over every course, and each one you collect gives you a progressive speed boost that maxes out when you get to 10. You'll also get a pair of coins as a weapon, usually when you're up near the top of the pack, which I guess is fine except for how frequently you get them. I'd much rather have a green shell or a banana peel than extra coins that don't have much use once I'm already in the lead, but that seems to be the weapon you get dealt most often.
There are 16 new courses in Mario Kart 8, along with 16 older courses that have been redesigned for the various quirks of the game's new driving engine. Those quirks include multiple sections where you'll drive underwater, glide through the air, or flip and zip on walls and ceilings using a new anti-gravity mechanic. You don't have to actually do anything special to drive through these bits, mind you. Everything activates automatically, and apart from making the screen look particularly crazy when you're driving upside down, none of these variances do much to change the act of driving your kart. That said, the sheer variety of paths and change-ups is pretty great, especially in the newer courses.
These tracks are where Mario Kart 8 shines brightest. They're often tough, but incredibly satisfying to drive on. A few particular highlights for me were the lap-less Wario Mountain, the disco-tinged Electrodome, and the new Bowser Castle, which features a giant lava statue of Bowser literally punching the course in rhythm to the dueling electric guitar/horn section solos of the soundtrack. There are others, and it's great how many of the new courses manage to stand out. It's just a shame the "classic" courses are less memorable. Again, this is a highly subjective thing. One person's Coconut Mall is another person's DK Jungle, after all. I just didn't like most of the selections Nintendo made here, though at the very least they've been retrofitted pretty well for the added mechanics of this sequel.
Character variety is also a little lacking. There are certainly lots to choose from, including newcomers like the Koopalings. But for as many characters as the game offers, few feel like especially worthwhile additions. It's always felt to me like Nintendo has struggled to come up with more interesting characters as each sequel adds more and more of them. I remember the Koopalings, but I don't necessarily remember them well enough to be excited by their inclusion. That the roster also includes metallic versions of Mario and Peach, plus five (!!!) baby versions of characters is perhaps emblematic of a need to branch out beyond the purest reaches of the Mario universe for future games. Maybe a Smash Bros. approach is in order?
Regardless of character variety issues or lacking classic courses, Mario Kart 8 is just a lot of fun, whether you're playing offline or on. It's understandable if you have some trepidation regarding online play, given Nintendo's sometimes inexplicable bungling of online features in games, but Mario Kart 8 demonstrated few problems during my time with it. Granted, I only got to play against other critics, but I got into some full lobbies during my testing, and many of those were populated with players from various corners of Europe. Yet I saw no lag when I played, and encountered no issues whatsoever dropping into a match or out. There are some interface quirks, to be sure. The in-game friends list doesn't do a great job of showing you up-front whether a player can be joined or not (though that information does come once you drill a bit deeper), and unfortunately, I couldn't find a way to change characters or karts after you've joined a lobby unless I backed out of the lobby altogether. Beyond that though, there's a solid array of options for online play beyond typical races. One mode lets you change the rules in a variety of ways--only allowing certain types of weapons, only allowing players to use bikes, etc--and you can do the same when setting up online tournaments.
You can also play battle mode online, though I don't actually recommend playing it under any circumstances. Battle mode has never been my favorite feature of Mario Kart anyway, but it was a ton of fun in some of the older games. This version of battle mode is just awful. Why? Because there are no battle arenas. The core mechanic of giving each character three balloons and a series of weapons with which to pop other players' balloons is still present, but you're battling on existing courses--and only the classic courses, to boot. This means you'll be driving around in circles in either direction trying (and often failing) to find opponents to hit, rather than just battling it out on a course designed for battles like this. It's an insane change that I absolutely cannot fathom an explanation for. It is immediately apparent from the first battle that this is no fun at all, so I would find it hard to believe that Nintendo wouldn't have noticed this while testing the game. It's so bizarre and disappointing.
That the battle mode is the only part of Mario Kart 8 I found particularly distressing is perhaps a testament to how good it is overall. No, this Mario Kart is not a radical formula change in any way, but if you're still expecting Nintendo to do such a thing after so many sequels featuring more or less the same game, I feel like maybe it's time to just let that dream die peacefully. Mario Kart 8 is very much the expected, but even the expected can be entertaining when it's done right. And I think Mario Kart 8 mostly does its expected things quite well. It takes the familiar mechanics of the series, adds a few fancy bells and whistles to them, then drops them into a world that's been polished to a glistening, finally HD sheen. In that respect, Mario Kart 8 is probably the best visual showpiece for the Wii U yet. It looks like the game we all kind of wished Mario Kart Wii was; bright, colorful, and exquisitely detailed. You probably won't notice all that detail until you watch someone else play it, but even as you're tooling around each course, it's hard to keep your eyes from wandering from one visual flourish or another. There's a lot to see, and it all looks spectacular.
Maybe hot Mario Kart visuals aren't enough to get you to go out and buy a Wii U, and that's probably fair. Few games should ever really be considered "system sellers," and another version of Mario Kart probably doesn't deserve such a qualification, no matter how solid that version may be. But if you do already own a Wii U, this is precisely the type of game you would have presumably bought the system for. It's Nintendo doing what Nintendo does, and doing it pretty well. With some games, that statement can have a damning quality, given how often Nintendo tends to play it safe with its major franchises. But I don't think it needs to apply to a game so frivolously entertaining as Mario Kart. It largely does what it needs to do, what you would want it to do, and does so with just enough distinction to make it stand out among the many other sequels in this series. Basically, Mario Kart 8 is some Mario Kart-ass-Mario Kart, and I think that's just fine.